US pastor and author Nancy Beach has gained international recognition for her ministry work transforming the relationship between the arts and church, and she is set to visit Australia for the Uniting Leaders conference in August. Bindy Taylor meets Nancy to discuss leadership, gender politics and the importance of having fun.
Nancy Beach is a self-confessed optimist. This outlook has served her well throughout the many trials and triumphs she has faced as a female leader, mentoring and inspiring church leaders and communities around the world.
Over the past three decades, Nancy has served in significant roles within Christian ministry in the United States. Feeling a call to leadership in the church, she worked as the Programming Director of Willow Creek Community Church (Chicago) for over 20 years and was a leadership member of the Willow Creek Association for five years. She was the first woman on Willow Creek’s church management team and later the first female teaching pastor. Always seeking to undertake ministry to the best of her abilities, she hoped that her gender would not be the main focus of her ministry work.
As a pioneer of female leadership, Nancy experienced mixed responses to her roles in the church. She was often forced to navigate challenging gender stereotypes and barriers, relating largely to theology, tradition, culture and denominational policies.
“When it became difficult, I would go back to that sense of calling and ask God if he was releasing me yet—and the answer was ‘no’. So I would keep going,” she says.
Over the years, Nancy has fine-tuned the art of leading as a woman in the church. Overcoming stereotypes, she has made full use of her God-given gifts in teaching, leading, ministry and the arts—helping and mentoring others to do the same.
Nancy’s hope and prayer is that more churches open up dialogue with female leaders and offer opportunities for women to fully express their gifts; not just in historically “female” roles, such as children’s and women’s ministry, but in leadership. She envisages churches offering women opportunities to fully express their gifts and to teach from the pulpit on a regular basis.
Nancy attributes much of her success in ministry leadership to her calling from God and the encouragement of her close friends.
“I intentionally found great support from close friends who were a safe place for me. I doubt I would have made it this far in ministry without the women in my tribe,” she explains.
By “tribe” Nancy is referring to the close-knit group of women who have helped and encouraged her throughout her leadership and life journey. She recognises how significant the support of close friends can be as a way to overcome hard times and it’s something she frequently mentions in her latest book, Gifted to Lead: the Art of Leading as a Woman in the Church.
Nancy’s idea of women building a “tribe” or regularly joining with a group of other women is something that also received attention in Lynne Hybels’ book, Nice Girls Don’t Change the World. A fellow Willow Creek leader, Lynne writes:
“When we do this, when we help one another, cheer one another on, call one another to our truest and highest selves, we become a powerful force for good—for God—in this world.”
Nancy reiterates and adds to Lynne’s wisdom, encouraging women to support one another and to consider mentorship.
“Many women, really of all ages, long for a mentor. When I first heard that word ‘mentor’, it scared me and I didn’t feel qualified!” Nancy recalls.
“But I grew to understand it’s mostly about coming alongside a woman and being available, modelling as best you can a surrendered life, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and share some of your own mistakes.”
Nancy also offers practical insights and wisdom—in her book and in person—and openly shares the learning she has gleaned from serving so closely with predominantly male leaders.
“Sometimes, a woman finds herself working with men who are not accustomed to having women on the leadership team, and so it can feel awkward for everyone,” Nancy says.
She believes that having a sense of humour and the ability to talk about awkward things—those proverbial “elephants in the room”—is important in leadership positions.
“Too often we begin to take ourselves and our situations so seriously that we miss out on the fun and discovery that makes any ministry experience one of joy rather than a constant battle. Laugh with your colleagues: your burdens will be lighter and ministry will prove to be much more fun.”
Many women have shared their challenging and celebratory leadership stories with Nancy, helping her to identify ways women successfully utilise their leadership gifts.
“As one woman leader at a time steps into whatever leadership opportunities do exist, and leads with character, skill, and grace, I believe her example will help open other doors,” she explains.
“I also think women with leadership gifts can pray about what bold conversations they might want to initiate with male leaders to explore this territory.”
But while Nancy is eager to provide advice for women, she acknowledges the barriers and challenges that many face in exercising leadership within the church.
“Many women serve in churches where the theological position on women leading and teaching is on the conservative side, so they have a limit to how much they can lead or who they can teach,” she explains. “I think this will continue to be a challenge.”
It is Nancy’s hope and prayer that more churches will become open to exploring ministry beyond these barriers—to create movement and steps to empower women as far as the church’s theology allows.
She believes that male leaders in the church have a significant role in making progress in this area and an entire chapter of her book is dedicated to encouraging men to advocate for women with teaching and leadership gifts.
Nancy also urges men to better understand women in their church, engage in diligent study on the topic of female church leaders, and make this an important issue of discussion.
But women remain the key audience of her book and her ministry, and it’s to them she provides the
“God made no mistake when he gave you the gift of leadership. You will be held accountable one day for doing the best you can with what you have. So get on with it, stop apologising and lead!”
Nancy Beach will be a keynote speaker at the second annual Uniting Leaders conference, which will be held at Hope Valley Uniting Church from 22-24 August, 2017.